Lenny Feldmann - The CordeenMan
 

Article:  "America's Biggest Little Band Made History"

by Jay Landers

Thirty-five years ago this Fall, the week of September 10, 1971 to be exact, The Lawrence Welk Show # 1 aired.  "Thank You Very Much", his opening song of his opening new-season show, might well have been the theme song of the premiere program inauguration of the new Lawrence Welk Network.  The new network made its nationwide debut just one week after the final broadcast of "The Lawrence Welk Show" on the ABC-TV network.  ABC had announced its cancellation of the Welk show after 16 seasons in the Spring of 1971.  Lawrence Welk and his producers had anticipated the network's eventual cancellation of his long-running weekly, one-hour musical variety series.  What's remarkable, though, is that within 90 days, Lawrence Welk, at age 68, became the first national television figure to be personally responsible for the largest weekly syndication network at that point in time in television history.
 
The theme of the initial Lawrence Welk Show on the new network was "A Musical Tour of America" and Welk used it to express his and his musical family's appreciation to the hundreds of thousands of friends whose overwhelming response and support helped him to establish his television network.  "It's simply great to be an American and to live here in America," Welk said to his audience in that first new program, "where such a thing as this can be accomplished.  We owe so much to so many people for their words of praise and encouragement, and this is our way of saying, 'Thank You Very Much'!" 
 
Highlights of the first program of his syndicated network included Guy and Ralna Hovis singing "Moon Over Miami", Joe Feeney singing "On the Banks of the Wabash", an instrumental rendision of "Carolina in the Morning", Sandi and Salli's version of "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City", Bob Ralston's piano medley of New York tunes, Norma Zimmer and Jim Roberts' duet of "Beautiful Ohio", the Hotsy Totsy Boys and Mary Lou Metzger with "Alabamy Bound", Ken Delo singing "Oklahoma" and Myron Floren and the band did a swinging "Pennsylvania Polka".
 
The accordion in America was riding the crest of the fame of The Lawrence Welk Show.  The weekly fan mail for the show averaged 5,000-6,000 letters every week from 1955 to 1971 while it aired on ABC.  Famed newspaper columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell proclaimed Lawrence Welk "an American Tradition in his Own Lifetime".  When ABC announced its cancellation of the series, that fan mail soared to more than 80,000 letters per week.  There were 7,000 telephone calls to ABC in the Los Angeles area alone.  In all more than a million "letters, wires and phone calls" from all over the country were received by ABC, and the offices of Lawrence Welk and Don Fedderson Productions once the series was cancelled.
 
Over 200 TV stations signed nationally to form the new Lawrence Welk Network.  This included 135 ABC affiliates, 29 NBC and 27 CBS stations, and key-city independent stations, including the four Metro Media stations in New York, Washington, Kansas City and Los Angeles.  The Champaign Music Makers had first established their TV credentials with 3 1/2 years of weekly local telecasting credits in Los Angeles on KTLA.  Their national debut came as a 13-week summer replacement program on ABC in July, 1955.  Five weeks later Welk's 13-week contract was replaced with one for a full year, and the "first generation" of the Lawrence Welk Show was underway.
 
So, how many years and how much hard work did it take to become an American musical icon?
 
From 1927 to 1938, Lawrence Welk had discovered and maximized the marketing and promotional power of radio.  Welk had already spent a number of years as a teenager and young man in his twenties fronting small musical groups and performing for barn dances, weddings and a variety of musical theatre and community celebrations all over the Midwest.  For a time in 1926-27, young Lawrence was a "Peerless Entertainer" with George T. Kelly, who had a traveling troupe of actors and musicians who put on shows in small towns.  When that folded, he called his group "Lawrence Welk and the Hotsy Totsy Boys".  Then, Welk gathered together a 4-piece group, including himself on accordion, and they were performing in the Dakota's and intending to work their way south to New Orleans.  There was an unseasonal blizzard and they found themselves pulling to a stop at 4:30am at the Collins Hotel in Yankton, South Dakota.  A new radio station, WNAX, got Welk's attention and piqued his curiosity.  Commercial radio was barely 5 years old and something of a novelty. 
 
The WNAX studios were on the top floor of the Gurney Seed and Nursery Company.  Lawrence Welk went in and introduced himself and said he had a band, "Lawrence Welk and his Novelty Orchestra" - 4 pieces including piano and accordion, sax and a drummer who sang - and they specialized in polkas.  It was 8:15am.  "Can you have them here by nine o'clock?"  That chance stop in the bleak winter of 1927 led to his first long-term contract and established themselves as celebrities with a reputation that extended four hundred miles in every direction.  Welk realized and learned how to use the power of the communications media, beginning with radio and later TV, for the rest of his career.  It's a legacy that thrives today as 2007 will mark 80 years of some form of Lawrence Welk's music being heard on the airwaves.
 
While still under contract to WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, Lawrence Welk added to his orchestra and it became 6 musicians, all of whom could play multiple instruments.  Welk was determined to play the better ballrooms, including a chain of 7 ballrooms through the Midwest.  Trouble was, they were large well-run establishments that played only well-known big band.  Welk countered with being billed as "America's Biggest Little Band".  The Welk band never seemed to make it to the "big time" in cities such as Chicago. At one point Welk's entire band walked out on him and said his persistent bookings "in the sticks" and his German accent held back the band!  Out of that despair, Lawrence Welk decided that his band needed a "sponsor", and he contacted a dealer on the West Coast and bought wholesale lots of chewing gum called Honolulu Fruit Gum.